I wrote the article O for the Wings of a Dove a few months ago at a time when my life was becoming increasingly conflictual. Finally the dove flew away and found its dovecote. In that little article, I reflected on the relationship between solitude and loneliness. I was not alone but lonely.
A part of my choice of a place to live in the Mayenne countryside was financial, another part was the calmness of an independent house as opposed to a flat in a block of identical flats. Mostly, it came from a conviction that I was a mess mentally and spiritually. I got into that mess in 2005 when my thought was much less mature and I believed that an intimate relationship was desirable.
As my dis-ease evolved over the years, I sought to understand a number of currents of thought like Romanticism. Emerson’s Self Reliance has also confirmed many of my own instincts. This essay has been translated into French under the title Confiance en Soi, Self Confidence. Where is the dividing line between such inner strength and sinful pride and selfishness? We are brainwashed in our corporate and collectivist world to eschew such individualism and seek relationships and social contact at all cost. After all, man is a social species like many others.
In Christian spirituality, there are alone-times that are recommended. The ultimate is the hermit, the contemplative solitary. On a more temporary basis, there is the retreat which is possible in a monastery guest house or alone in nature with a backpack and a tent. Most years since I learned to sail, I have been on a dinghy cruising journey both to enjoy nature the way very few people do and to live that jewel of solitude. When we are on our own, it is a test that can be painful or consoling – it depends on what state we are in. When we go into ourselves, what will we find? God? Evil spirits? Nothingness? If we find nothing within, from there comes the illusion of having to find what we are looking for in another person. That is the root of personality disorders.
If I were to prepare a couple for marriage, something I feel eminently unqualified to do, I would ask both of the persons whether they are ready to respect and uphold the solitude of the other. Few things are worse than one person who takes away the solitude and identity of the other. So many times, we see in a film the nagging woman wanting the attention of the man who is in his laboratory engaged in some inspired work. She is trying to drag the man into the “conformity mould”, get him to work as a civil servant or an accountant – but yet the result would be a destroyed individuality and a failure of that lust for the man’s soul. I won’t be “sexist”, because the possessiveness roles can easily be reversed.
If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married (Anton Chekhov)
We all experience the same paradox. I remember the words of my brother a few years ago in regard to my Aspergers autism diagnosis – “You have to come to terms with it”. I would add a layer of understanding to these words. Terms – terms are words with meanings. This is a concept I find in technical translating, where words are used in special meanings by different fields of knowledge and practice. As this reflection is written with words, it is good to give definitions. Isolation comes from the Latin insula, meaning an island, as in John Donne’s No man is an island unto himself. Loneliness more implies the lack of companionship. Solitude comes from the Latin solus. This is a word that is often used in the liturgy to underline the uniqueness of God. Thou alone art holy. It can mean not only the absence of relationship but also the existential integrity of the subject.
For many years, I have grappled with the idea of otherness. Why are we all human, yet only have the experience of being ourselves? The other person seems to be alien (not from another planet, but simply other), yet we are a part of the same humanity. It reminds the theologian of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Humanity and the person are just as mysterious and ineffable. The essential of our experience is to be alone, and this has to be accepted. Then comes the question of the limits of individualism and what can become selfishness and lack of respect and compassion for others. Whatever our moral obligations towards others, we are unique persons and respond to life differently. We cannot be another person, though we can and should experience a degree of empathy. Psychopathy is defined as the absence of empathy, which leads to inhumanity.
If our experience has diminished our belief in humanity, the work of reconstruction has to begin from oneself. The foundation is self-awareness, experience of God’s immanence as well as his transcendence. We live in a world of extraversion, of mass tourism, crowds and noise, “hanging out” with friends, the ideology of collectivism. Always being with others becomes overrated because of that notion that the object of desire is only in the ineffable other because we have nothing within ourselves.
Since childhood, I have been aware of the dangers of following the undifferentiated and unconscious herd, the mass, the current conformity fashion. Being capable of being alone, at least at times, enables us to live consciously, to develop that nobility of spirit of which we read in minds like Berdyaev and Thomas Mann. Solitude is the only thing that can heal our wounds and make our personalities mature.
Carl Gustav Jung describes this process as individuation, probably the one concept that was most understood by the Romantics. Each of us is alone to have our combination of skills, talents, personality and experience. I am frightened to be speaking with a stranger and find that this person is as alien to me as I am to him. What does this do to groupthink? I am amazed to see how corporate decisions can be so lacking in basic common sense and rationality. Collectivity brings stupidity, unless the group is made up of mature individuals. We can only become mature individuals by being ourselves, beginning with solitude.
Solitude brings strength and divine grace. We have to be strong to endure solitude and loneliness, to find our creative energies and sense of purpose. Others may be struggling with their meaning of life, certainly because they have looked for it in other people, who cannot give it to them except at best in a distorted form of an ideology.
The experience is painful. It leads many to serious errors like a poorly founded marriage, or “getting in with the wrong set”. No one else can do it for us, not for all the money in the world. We have to assume responsibility and rely on our own resources. No one else can understand what is within us any more than what is at the bottom of the ocean or on another planet. The only advice possible is in the form of general principles or platitudes at worst. This is how we grow up and acquire resilience and true stoicism.
The answers do not always come quickly. Our society is not given to waiting. Patience is a forgotten virtue. We often feel we are not getting anywhere, and often have to reculer pour bien sauter – the notion in the noble sport of fencing of taking a step back to make a better attack. I have learned many things about depression and differences between true clinical depression the falls under the competence of professionals and the results of binary and all-or-nothing thinking. We often have to go to those dark moments to find the light of our spark of divinity. Our only way is finding what lies within ourselves and facing it without the fog induced by seeking our “supply” from others, chemical substances or other extrinsic forms of stimulation.
This work is not navel-gazing but doing things that are both necessary (earning our living for example) and pleasurable (making things, reading and study, music, sports, whatever). The important thing is being ourselves. Of course, this will alienate us from the herd and the expectations of others. It is the work of heroes. I make no such claim, nor do I want to rely on human forces that will inevitably let me down. Why make the effort? We become less “in need” in our relationships with friends and family, more honest and aware. As the Americans say, we cut the crap.
As we grow, we become less dependent on that need for “supply” to compensate for our interior emptiness. Perhaps that mystery of “otherness” can be resolved in a new way, as unity of persons transcends nature – think of those old dogmatic lectures on the Trinity. Personhood exists at another level from crude individuality.
We become more authentic by being ourselves. Friendships become founded on higher principles. We develop a more ethical and moral sense of doing the right thing. If we are involved with other people, we like to do so on a basis of clarity of saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We stop looking elsewhere for authority and validation. This is particularly important in a world that seems to be sliding back to the 1920’s and a new era of ideologies and dictatorships.
Being creative will fill us with energy, doing the things we enjoy as well as things that can enable us to earn our living, at least to an extent. Our society is sick, to the extent that being sick is the “new normal”. We have to react against that ant colony and its bullshit. Solitude will bring us independence of mind, self-sufficiency and being able to resist the anthill and be ourselves.